Talking about recent reports of doping in track and field, Frank Shorter did his best impression of Captain Renault in “Casablanca.” “I’m shocked, shocked,” he said, with feigned disbelief. Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon champion, has long advocated stronger anti-doping measures. And there’s more than a hint of I-told-you-so when he discusses how often track and field is mentioned in the same breath as doping-ravaged cycling.
“Unfortunately, it was one of those situations where it was worse than we thought,” said Shorter. “And I hate to say it, but I put more trust in the hands of international cycling right now than in the hands of track and field [to clean up their sports].”
Why such pessimism from a US distance running legend? Because the IAAF, the world governing body for track and field, still promotes and polices the sport. Because blood test results, not major meet results, have dominated the buildup to the 2015 World Championships.
The event starts Saturday at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing. All the big names will be there. And all the questions about who’s doping and who’s not will be there, too. No athlete can outrun the revelations that have rocked the sport in recent months.
The most damaging came in a series of early August disclosures from Britain’s Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD. More than 12,000 blood test results from 5,000 athletes were leaked to the media outlets and tested by two scientists. The experts’ findings indicated that 146 medalists in Olympic and World Championship endurance events between 2001 and 2012 had “suspicious” test results. Fifty-five gold medalists were included in that number.
Russians led the pack with 415 suspicious tests, while perennial distance running power Kenya had 77. US athletes posted 32 abnormal results. On Monday, Turkish runner Asli Cakir Alptekin was banned from competition for eight years and stripped of the gold medal she won in the 1,500 meters at the 2012 London Games, becoming the first athlete sanctioned since the Sunday Times and ARD reports.
Additionally, 32 medal winners at the world’s six major marathons registered suspicious blood tests, with Boston, Chicago, New York, and London the most affected races. The news comes on the heels of three-time Boston Marathon champion Rita Jeptoo testing positive for the blood-booster EPO and receiving a two-year ban at the beginning of the year.
Robin Parisotto, who invented the test used to detect EPO and examined the leaked samples, told the Sunday Times, “Never have I seen such an alarmingly abnormal set of blood values. So many athletes appear to have doped with impunity, and it is damning that the IAAF appears to have idly sat by and let this happen.”
Travis Tygart, CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), sees the IAAF at a critical juncture similar to the one cycling faced in 2013 after Lance Armstrong admitted doping and the International Cycling Union elected a new president committed to cleaning up the sport.
“Hopefully, the IAAF takes advantage of the atmosphere to make good, fundamental change for the rights of the athletes and the integrity of competition,” said Tygart. “We have to give confidence to and restore faith in those athletes that are doing it the right way that they’re not going to be unnecessarily questioned because of a few bad apples. And most importantly, that they can win in this sport without having to become frauds by using these drugs in order to win.”
Like spectators, clean athletes question whether certain runners deserve the medals they take home. US Olympians Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher were always suspicious of Turkish rival Elvan Abeylegesse, who won silver in the 10,000 meters at the 2007 World Championships (one spot ahead of Goucher) and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (one spot ahead of Flanagan). And they were right to be suspicious.
Last week, Turkish Athletics confirmed that Abeylegesse tested positive for doping at the 2007 World Championships. That news came days after the IAAF announced it had retested samples from the 2005 and 2007 World Championships and discovered 32 “adverse findings” from 28 athletes. The IAAF said that the majority of the 28 athletes were retired, that some had been sanctioned, and that a few remained active. The IAAF promised “none of the athletes concerned will be competing in Beijing.”
Although Abeylegesse issued a statement denying any illegal substance use, she has withdrawn from the World Championships. If her “B” sample also tests positive, Flanagan and Goucher will see their bronze medals upgraded to silver. And it’s likely other athletes will receive medal upgrades as more names are linked to recent doping revelations.
On her Instagram account, alongside throwback photos of her smiling with her bronze medal, Goucher wrote, “While I will never have the pleasure of that moment back or to stand higher on the podium, I am grateful for those who work tirelessly to clean up our sport. 8 years later, justice is served.”
Earlier this summer, Goucher also spoke out about her former coach, Alberto Salazar, pushing distance runners to top performances through questionable reliance on therapeutic use exemptions that some consider cheating. Therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) allow athletes with an illness or long-term condition to take medications that are usually prohibited. For example, some asthma medications require TUEs.
In an investigation by ProPublica, athletes and staff members who worked with Salazar through his distance running team, the Oregon Project, alleged that he had violated track and field’s medical and anti-doping regulations. Those athletes and Oregon Project employees claimed that Salazar experimented with micro-dosing testosterone. And that he encouraged athletes to take medications that they did not need or did not have prescribed to them. It was, according to the ProPublica report, all to gain a competitive advantage. And it’s drawn the attention of USADA and other anti-doping organizations.
The most prominent athletes ensnared in the Salazar allegations were British distance superstar Mo Farah, gold medalist in the 5,000 and 10,000 at the 2012 London Olympics, and US distance prodigy Galen Rupp, silver medalist in the 10,000 in London. The most shocking claim from the investigation: Salazar gave Rupp the banned substance testosterone when he was 16.
Rupp, now 29, has never failed a drug test despite being one of the more frequently-tested US track athletes. He told ProPublica that he has never used performance-enhancing drugs and that Salazar never suggested he take a prohibited substance. And Rupp, who has suffered with asthma and allergies since he was young, added that if he uses a medicine that requires a TUE, he either gets a TUE or makes sure the substance is out of his system before he races.
The athletes and staff members who told ProPublica and the BBC about Salazar’s controversial methods never linked Farah, 32, to any inappropriate drug use. Still, Farah’s continued association with Salazar has raised questions.
The gold medalist hired crisis-management consultants to help him address the fallout from the investigation of Salazar. UK Athletics launched a review of the relationship between Farah and Salazar. And UK Athletics chairman Ed Warner told BBC radio that the allegations against Salazar are “going to be dogging [Farah], reputationally, for some time, if not for the rest of his career.” They will certainly follow him to the World Championships.
As new doping violations surface with increasing regularity, everything from the company athletes keep to the cold medicines they take comes under closer scrutiny. And that’s something the biggest names are well aware of. Doctors have told Meb Keflezighi, the 2014 Boston Marathon champion, that certain biomarkers in his blood are low. But he refuses to get a TUE or take anything to raise hormone levels or treat other small deficiencies.
“I am who I am,” said Keflezighi. “I’ve been in the sport a long time. I have a profile. I’m an Olympic medalist. I won New York. I won Boston. Even when I get sick, I let nature take its course. If I take a little cold medicine, I could wipe out my reputation. I rather just not.”
Keflezighi and other athletes put their faith in organizations such as USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to clean up track and field. And USADA, WADA, and other independent anti-doping groups may point the way for the IAAF and other sports organizations charged with promoting and policing their sports.
As the main international promoter of track and field, the IAAF wants the biggest names in the biggest meets for the biggest audiences and the biggest profits. So, when the biggest names, typically medal winners, register suspicious results, it creates a conflict of interest for the IAAF. The real bottom line: The IAAF and national federations need independent groups to test athletes and hand down punishments.
“It’s a very simple rule: You can’t promote and police,” said Shorter. “Anybody who is promoting the sport and policing it at the same time does not want to solve the problem. The Kenyan federation should not be in charge of testing the Jamaican federation. They should all have independent testing agencies with no dog in the fight.”
In response to the recent suspicious blood tests, the IAAF released a statement that called the news “sensationalist and confusing.” The federation also emphasized that the “evaluation of the data did not prove doping.”
In the old days, maybe that spin would have worked. But Shorter added that social media now keeps the IAAF from controlling the narrative and makes people more comfortable going up against the IAAF or other federations, whether it’s whistle-blowers leaking blood tests to media outlets, competitors reporting concerns, or athletes such as Farah releasing his own blood test data to prove he’s clean. Also, new leadership might change how the IAAF approaches anti-doping enforcement.
On Wednesday, two-time Olympic champion Sebastian Coe became IAAF president. And he appears to share the same anti-doping philosophy as Shorter. In his election platform, Coe pledged to create a better-financed anti-doping unit that would operate separately from the IAAF. That looks like a step toward eliminating track and field’s “promote and police” conflict and standardizing how countries follow through with international anti-doping policies.
“In the Olympic movement, we all have the same policy,” said Tygart. “It’s the world anti-doping code. But given that the policy is uniform, do you have the implementation of that policy at the highest and most thorough level? That’s a serious question that has to be answered in some parts of the world. Obviously, there’s questions about Russia’s implementation, Kenya’s implementation.”
But even in countries with independent anti-doping agencies, athletes caught using performance-enhancing drugs and suspended from competition create an image problem for track and field. Take US sprinter Justin Gatlin. In May, Gatlin ran 100 meters in 9.74 seconds, the fastest time in the world in 2015 and the 10th-fastest time in history. In fact, Gatlin, 33, is sprinting faster than before he received a four-year suspension for a positive test in 2006, the second of two bans during his career. And many athletes and track fans wonder if his body still benefits from using performance-enhancing drugs or if something else is at play.
At the World Championships, Gatlin will challenge 100-meter world record-holder Usain Bolt for gold in the meet’s premier event. And doping past and present will inevitably be part of the race’s story line.
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